To Hold Forever
By Carrie Carr
Disclaimers – See Part One. Any comments, good or bad, can be sent to – firstname.lastname@example.org . Please be gentle <g>.
AMANDA’S EYES OPENED and she squinted to peer around the room. The room was dark and the digital reading from the alarm clock next to the bed showed it was only five o’clock in the morning. She wasn’t sure what had caused her to awake, until she felt an unusual queasiness. It was the third day in a row she had been disturbed in this manner, but she chalked it up to her frazzled nerves. Even after they returned to the ranch, Amanda couldn’t help but think about the escaped convicts, and all they could have missed if things had turned out differently.
“Why are you awake?” Lex rolled over and faced Amanda. “Is everything okay?”
“I’m just thinking about how lucky I am.” Amanda palmed Lex’s cheek. “We could have lost all of this.”
Lex covered Amanda’s hand with her own. “But we didn’t. Besides, I made you a promise that I would come home. And you know I don’t break my promises.”
“I know. I was just so scared.”
“To tell you the truth, so was I. When we finally caught up to those guys, I wasn’t too sure if I could even raise my gun.” Lex brought Amanda’s hand from her face and kissed the palm. “The last thing I wanted to do was let Charlie down. He was depending on me to cover his back. Once things got going, I just did what I had to do to keep us both safe.”
Amanda moved so she could snuggle against her lover. “And you have no idea how thankful I am for that.”
“I think I do. I was glad you were in town with your grandparents. I wasn’t so scared for me, as I was you. Now things can get back to normal.” Lex tucked the bedding around Amanda. “Get some rest, sweetheart.”
Her eyes already sliding closed, Amanda yawned. “Love you.”
Lex kissed the top of her head. “I love you, too.”
SEVERAL DAYS LATER, Lex trotted down the stairs in route to joining Amanda and Lorrie for breakfast. A firm knock on the front door caused her to change direction. She opened the door and then took a step back. A man and woman faced her. Lex directed her glare at him. “What are you doing here?”
“What? You’re not glad to see me? It’s been a couple of years, little sister.” Hubert Walters had his arm around a petite blonde woman. “Aren’t you going to ask us in?”
Getting over her surprise, Lex couldn’t contain her curiosity. “Okay, fine. But there better not be any funny business, or I’ll throw you out.” She moved back to allow them to enter. “Let’s go into the den.”
Hubert led the silent woman with him into the room and took a seat on the sofa. “The place looks good.”
Unsettled by his demeanor, Lex followed them and sat on the loveseat. “Thanks. I didn’t even know you were out of jail. What brings you by here?”
“I thought I’d show Janine where I grew up.” He put his arm across the back of the couch and his fingers grazed the top of the woman’s shoulders. “Oh, yeah. Janine, this is my sister, Lex.” With a proud look on his face, Hubert pulled her close. “Sis, this is my wife, Janine.”
Wife? Lex blinked. Sis? He’s never called me that. “It’s nice to meet you, Janine.” Lex continued to stare at her brother. She was relieved when Amanda came into the room, carrying Lorrie.
“Momma!” Lorrie struggled in Amanda’s arms until she was set down. As soon as her feet hit the floor, she raced over to Lex and climbed into her lap. Standing up, she wrapped her arms around Lex’s neck and gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
Hubert’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “Momma? You have a kid? How did that happen?”
“Didn’t dad ever go over the birds and bees with you?”
Amanda joined Lex and Lorrie on the loveseat. She gave a friendly smile to the woman who sat next to Hubert. “Hi, I’m Amanda, Lex’s partner. This is our daughter, Lorrie.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Amanda. I’m Janine.”
“Hubert’s wife,” Lex added.
“Oh?” Amanda quickly covered her surprise. “How long have you two known each other?”
Janine leaned into Hubert’s embrace. “A little over a year. I was Hubert’s anger management counselor. Once he got out of jail, he started sending me flowers, asking for a date. After several months I finally gave in, and we’ve been together ever since.”
“How long have you been out, Hube? I didn’t think you’d be coming back to Somerville so soon.” Lex bounced Lorrie on her knee to keep her occupied.
Hubert squeezed Janine’s shoulder. He turned and looked into her eyes with adoration. “Janie’s been my rock. Thanks to her, I got out early, about eight months ago. We’ve decided to settle down here since that’s where my family is.”
“Family?” Lex stopped moving, much to Lorrie’s dismay.
The little girl patted Lex’s leg. “More.” When she was ignored, Lorrie patted it harder. “More.” She raised her eyes to Lex’s face and frowned. “Momma?” Trying another tactic, she kicked her legs. “Pease?”
“I’m sorry, lil’ bit.” Lex resumed the action.
“Yeah. You, our grandfather. And it looks like I’ve got a niece, now.”
Amanda stood. “Would you like some coffee?” She needed a few minutes to get her equilibrium back. “There’s a fresh pot in the kitchen.”
Janine also stood. “That would nice, thank you. Let me give you a hand, so these two can get reacquainted.”
“Um, sure.” Amanda left the room with Janine on her heels. Once they were in the kitchen, she pulled out a tray and placed four mugs on it. “Do you take anything in your coffee?”
“No, black is fine.” Janine touched Amanda’s shoulder. “I know this must be a shock to you, us showing up like we have. Hubert told me all about the animosity between him and his sister. He’s let go of his anger, and forgiven her.”
Amanda spun around. “He’s forgiven her? Did your husband happen to mention why he was locked up?”
“Of course. He was quite remorseful about the whole misunderstanding.”
“What?” Amanda shook her head as if trying to clear it. “Just what exactly did he tell you?”
Janine poured the coffee into the mugs, not seeing the incredulous look on Amanda’s face. “Oh, he admitted that what happened to the two of you was wrong, and he was terribly upset by it. As a matter of fact, he feels like it was his fault. If he hadn’t mentioned to those men how upset he was with his sister, they would have never ran your truck off the road.”
“I hate to break this to you, Janine, but Hubert didn’t just mention something to those men. He paid them to hurt us. He even admitted that to us, right before he was arrested. I can’t even begin to tell you all the horrible things he’s put Lex through.”
“Well, that’s your opinion, of course. I just go by what he’s told me. Hubert has always been honest with me, and I trust him.”
Amanda picked up the tray and started to leave the kitchen. “A word of warning to you, Janine. This is a wonderful family you’ve married into, but Hubert’s never been a part of it. Watch your back. When you least expect it, he’ll turn on you.”
In the living room, Lorrie tired of using Lex as a horse and curled up in her arms. She had one hand tangled in Lex’s shirt and her eyes closed. To keep from disturbing her, Lex kept her voice low. “I don’t know what your game is, Hubert. The last time I saw you, I remember you threatening to kill me. Don’t you think for one minute I’ve forgotten what you did to us.”
He leaned forward in his seat. “I’m not sure what you’re saying. Can’t you just be happy for me?”
“The only thing that would make me happy is to never see your face again. You’re a sorry excuse for a human being, and nothing you do or say is going to change that fact.”
Janine heard the last of the conversation as she came into the room. “Excuse me? What gives you the right to pass judgment on him? From what I’ve been told, you’re just as much to blame as anyone.”
After Amanda placed the tray on the coffee table, Lex handed Lorrie to her and stood. “I think you two should leave.”
“That’s a good idea.” Janine got her purse. “You were right, Hubert. She is an unreasonable and hateful person.” She took his arm. “Let’s go. You shouldn’t have to be subjected to her nasty temper.”
He waited until his wife’s back was to the others and grinned. “Thanks, baby. I told you it wouldn’t do any good to come out here.” To Lex, he mouthed, “Bitch.” Then, out loud, he said, “Bye, sis. I had hoped to have a better relationship with you.”
“Go to hell, Hubert.” Lex got to her feet and held her fists at her side, wanting more than anything to knock the self-satisfied look off his face. “Get out.”
Amanda put her hand on Lex’s chest to keep her from going after her brother. “Honey, it’s okay.”
“We’ll be leaving now.” Janine led her husband from the house, afraid of what his volatile sister would do to him.
Lex waited until the door was closed. “That went well.” She exhaled heavily and dropped down to sit on the loveseat again. “I’m sorry, Amanda. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“You have nothing to apologize for. I talked to Janine in the kitchen, and apparently she is completely deluded as to who he really is. Hubert has obviously lied to her about everything.”
“She’s an idiot.” Lex rubbed her face with her hands. “I wonder how long it’s going to be before she meets the real him. There’s no way he can keep up the charade for long.”
Amanda sat next to her, with Lorrie still sleeping in her arms. “They say love is blind.” She nudged Lex with her shoulder. “It’s obviously stupid, too.”
“Yeah.” Leaning her head back and closing her eyes, Lex suddenly felt very weary. “I don’t know what he’s up to.”
Amanda placed her head on Lex’s shoulder in a show of support. “I don’t either, but we can hope that he’s so busy with his new wife, he’ll leave us alone.”
“I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.”
Neither was Amanda. She had a feeling they hadn’t seen the last of him, and the thought scared her.
HEAVY RAIN SETTLED into the area again the following day. Lex decided to use the time to work in the barns. She was reorganizing the tack room when Jack appeared at the door. “Can I talk to you for a minute, boss?”
Lex took off her hat and wiped her brow. She propped herself up against the rack where the saddles were kept. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” He mirrored her posture on the opposite wall.
“What about? Is there something the matter?”
Unable to meet her eyes, he ducked his head. “I owe you an apology.”
“Being a gutless coward.” Sticking his hands in his front pockets, he looked everywhere but at her. “I’ve come to give you my notice.”
Lex moved to stand in front of him, and waited until she had his attention. “Hell, Jack. I don’t think you’re gutless at all. If it had been anyone else but Charlie, I wouldn’t have gone in the first place.”
He raised his hopeful eyes to hers. “Really?” Jack was only in his early-twenties, and looked up to his boss. “Were you scared, too?”
“How did you get over it?”
She clasped his shoulder. “I didn’t. But I wasn’t about to let anything happen to Charlie, or any of you. And I didn’t want those assholes near our place.” Lex escorted him from the room. “Do you really want to quit? I’d miss you.”
“No, I guess not. I just didn’t think you’d want a coward working for you.”
They stood at the main door and watched the rain come down. “You’re not a coward. I’d trust you to watch my back, any day.”
“Yep.” She noticed he wasn’t wet. “How did you get here? It’s pouring rain, and you look dry.”
He scuffed his toe in the dirt. “Roy dropped me off. He was heading into town for a few supplies.” Jack frowned at the rain. “I guess I’m stuck here until it lets up some.”
“Nah.” Lex adjusted her hat and grabbed her coat, which was lying on a bale of hay. “I’ll give you a ride back.”
“Thanks.” Feeling relieved, Jack followed Lex out into the rain.
MARTHA WAS UP to her elbows in dishwater when the front doorbell rang. She was the only one in the house. Amanda had taken Lorrie into town for her regular checkup with her pediatrician. With a heavy sigh, Martha wiped her hands on a dishtowel as she hurried to answer the door. Upon opening it, she came face-to-face with a man in his mid-twenties. His hair was rusty brown, and his gray eyes were set in a tanned face.
He took his straw western hat off and held it in his shaking hands. “Ma’am? May I speak with Rawson Walters?”
“I’m afraid not, young man. He passed away a few years ago. Is there something I can do for you?”
Lowering his eyesight to the hat he was holding, the stranger shook his head. “I guess not, ma’am.” He raised his head and noticed the wedding band she wore. “Are you Mrs. Walters?”
Unable to help herself, Martha chuckled. “Lordy, no. I just take care of the place.” She held out one hand. “I’m Martha Bristol.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bristol.” He shook her hand. “My name’s Cleve Winters.”
“Mr. Winters. Were you here to see Mr. Walters about a job? I know we can usually use an extra hand.”
Cleve began to fiddle with the brim of his hat. “Not exactly. I was hoping to just meet with him, and talk.”
Feeling he was no threat, Martha followed her gut instincts and stepped aside. “It’s nasty out here. Why don’t you come in, and I’ll get you a cup of coffee? We can discuss this more in the kitchen.”
“ANOTHER CUP OF coffee, Lex?” Lester, the bunkhouse cook, waved the pot in the air. “It’s still raining pretty good. I’d hate to see that old Jeep of yours end up in a ditch somewhere.”
Lex choked down the rest of her cup. It was quite a bit stronger than she was used to, but a welcome offering to warm her after being out in the damp air. She grinned at the men seated around the scarred old table. “Nah. Since I’ve already whipped these guys in poker, I might as well head on up to the house.”
“No fair. We should get a chance to win our pennies back,” Roy complained good naturedly. “I’m out almost a dollar, as it is.”
“Is it my fault you can’t bluff?” Lex stood and jiggled the change in her pockets. “At least you’re not the one rattling when you walk.”
Chet, another one of the hands, tossed a penny at Roy, hitting him in the chest. “Here. Don’t say I never gave you nothing.”
Roy picked up the offering and studied it. “Gee, thanks. Now I can get that new truck I was thinking about.” He flipped it in the air. “Since you have all my others, do you want this one too, boss?”
“That’s okay. Save it for next time, then I’ll take it off your hands.” Lex ducked as the penny went sailing over her head. “You’re going to have to do better than that.”
Before Lex could make it to the door, the telephone near the stove rang. Lester limped over and answered it. “Lex? It’s for you.”
She walked to where he stood and took the handset. “Thanks.”
“Lexie, you need to get back up to the house.” Worry colored Martha’s tone.
“I really don’t want to get into it over the phone, but you’ve got a visitor.”
Lex propped herself against the wall and studied the fingernails on one hand. She frowned when she saw dried mud underneath them. “Who is it? Not Hubert again?”
“No. It’s just a fellow you should talk to. Now quit playing twenty questions, and get your rear back to the house.”
Lex’s cocked her head at the no-nonsense tone in Martha’s voice. Whatever it was, she was upset. “Yes, ma’am.” Lex hung up the phone. She moved to the door and took her coat from its peg, shrugging into it. “Gotta go, guys. I’ll be back some other time to take your money.”
Roy made a shooing motion with his hands. “Go on. I’ll try to find something constructive for this lot to do.” He waited until the door was closed and turned to Lester. “Is Martha on the warpath?”
The old cook shrugged his shoulders. “Didn’t sound like it. At least not until the boss was giving her a hard time.” He hitched up his pants. “Since it’s still raining, it’s a good day to move all the furniture and clean the floors. Come on, boys. I’m going to put y’all to work.” He was answered by a roomful of groans.
STANDING ON THE back porch of the ranch house, Lex took her hat off and shook the rain water from it. “I’m starting to feel like a damned fish.” She stomped her feet to clear some of the mud off, then wiped them on a thick mat outside the door. Satisfied they were clean enough, she stepped into the house and hung her hat and duster on the hooks by the door. “Martha?”
“Stop your yelling, Lexie.” Martha came out of the kitchen and swatted her with a towel. “I know you like to spend all your time there, but I didn’t raise you in a barn.”
Properly chastised, Lex took the towel from Martha and wiped the water from her own face. “Sorry about that.”
Martha took the towel away from her and dabbed at Lex’s hair. “You’re soaked.”
“Couldn’t help it. It’s coming down in buckets out there.” Lex ducked out of the way. “Stop that.”
“Maybe you should go upstairs and get into some dry clothes.”
“It’s not that bad. I’ll dry.”
Martha slapped at Lex’s arm. “You’ll catch cold, is what you’ll do. Go change, and I’ll have your guest wait for you in the den.”
Knowing she was beat, Lex kissed Martha’s cheek. “Yes, ma’am.” She hurried up the stairs, leaving small bits of mud as she went.
“I’m going to kill that girl, one of these days.” Martha could always count on Lex keeping her mop bucket in use. She went back to the kitchen to keep Cleve company, until Lex returned.
Less than five minutes later, Lex returned to the first floor of the house. She walked into the living room where Martha was talking with a man who sat next to the fireplace. “Hello.”
He jumped to his feet. “Ms. Walters. Thanks for seeing me.”
“No problem.” Lex held out her hand, pleased with his strong grip. “Just call me Lex.”
“Okay, Lex. My name’s Cleve Winters.”
Lex motioned for him to sit. She took the chair opposite him. “What can I do for you, Mr. Winters?”
“Cleve, please.” He propped one foot on his opposite knee and began to jiggle it nervously. “I wasn’t really expecting to see you.”
“Who exactly were you expecting?”
Realizing his foot was moving, Cleve stopped. “I actually came here looking for Mr. Walters.”
“Why? Did he offer you a job, or something?” Out of the corner of her eye, Lex saw Martha twisting her ever-present dishtowel. “Martha?”
“I think I’ll get you two some coffee.” Martha stood and left the room, unable to meet Lex’s gaze.
Lex got to her feet, also. “All right, Cleve. I’m not in the mood for games. What the hell’s going on here?”
His foot started wiggling again. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to upset Mrs. Bristol. I only came here to—”
“To what?” Lex was on the verge of jerking him out of the chair and shaking him. “Just spit it out. Why were you looking for my dad? What was he to you?”
Cleve studied the stitched pattern on the top of his boot. “My father.”
“Excuse me?” Lex was sure she didn’t hear him correctly.
“I said, he was my father.”
Lex felt like she had been kicked in the stomach. She fell back into her chair. “I don’t believe this.”
He rose from the chair. “Look, Ms. Walters. I didn’t come here to cause any problems. I just wanted to meet my father.”
“What makes you think my father, Rawson Walters, was your dad?” Lex ran her hands through her hair, which was still damp from the rain.
“Because my mother told me so.”
Lex looked into his eyes. “How do you know she was telling the truth?”
Cleve’s face reddened. He grabbed her by the shirt and pulled her from the chair. “Are you calling my mother a liar?”
“Get your damn hands off me.” Lex clutched his wrists in an effort to break free.
“What’s going on in here?” Martha came into the room and almost dropped the tray she was holding. “Lexie, stop it!”
Lex pushed Cleve away from her and brushed the front of her shirt. “I didn’t do anything. This jackass attacked me.”
Embarrassed by his actions, Cleve backed away from Lex and stuck his hands in his front pockets. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Bristol.” He glared at Lex. “Just don’t talk about my mother like that.”
“Like what? All I did was ask a simple question.” Lex took the tray from Martha and set it on a nearby table. “Thanks.”
“You insinuated my mother was a liar.” He clinched his fists at his sides. “I don’t appreciate that.”
Lex adjusted her shirt. It was still wrinkled where he grabbed it. “Well, I don’t like when someone manhandles me, either. So I guess we’re even.”
Martha was tempted to spank her. “Behave.”
“Fine.” Lex sat again. “Okay, Cleve. Why don’t you tell me why your mother thinks we have the same father?”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Digging through it, he finally found what he was looking for. Cleve handed Lex a small photograph. “See for yourself.”
She took the wallet-sized print and studied it. The grainy print was of a man astride a horse. Lex squinted to make out the face. “Okay. So you have an old picture of a guy. What’s this supposed to prove?”
“Mom says it’s the only shot she has of my father. And she told me his name was Rawson Walters, and he lived in Texas.”
Lex looked at it again. The man in the photo did favor her father. “This could be anyone. How do I know you’re not trying to get a piece of this ranch? Maybe you read the obituary, and waited a while before showing up.”
Cleve took a step toward her. “You’re full of shit, lady.” He looked at Martha. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to say that in front of you.”
“I’ve heard worse.” Martha stood nearby, not trusting either of them to control themselves. “Why don’t you show her what you showed me?”
“Oh, yeah.” Cleve reached into his other back pocket and pulled out a ratty folded envelope. He handed it to Lex, who accepted it gingerly. “Go ahead. Read the note inside.”
Lex removed a rumpled piece of paper and unfolded it. She read it silently, then looked up. “Where did you get this?”
He appeared smug. “My mother’s name is Marcy. That’s who it was written to. Do you recognize the signature?”
Although the scrawled name was nearly illegible, Lex knew exactly whose it was. “Yes, dammit.” The letter, although short, was written to someone named Marcy. In it, the author explained that although he cared about her, he was going back to Texas to make amends with his family. He mentioned how his wife at home was pregnant with their third child, and he was determined to be a better husband and father.
“He didn’t even know Mom was pregnant with me when he left.” Cleve took the letter from Lex. “She never heard from him again.”
Lex lowered her head. She closed her eyes to ward off the headache that began to make itself known. “I really don’t need this right now.”
WHEN AMANDA RETURNED with Lorrie from the appointment, she was surprised to find that Lex was no where to be found. The house was quiet. Normally her partner would be anxiously waiting, wanting to know every detail of the doctor’s visit. Lorrie began to fuss, so Amanda placed her in the high chair in the kitchen, in order to feed her an overdue snack.
The back door closed and Amanda looked up hopefully. When Martha came into the room, Amanda’s hopes fell. “Hi Martha.”
“Hello, there. How was the check up?” Martha went to the refrigerator and took out a gallon of milk. She shook the container before pouring a small amount into Lorrie’s favorite sippy cup. “I swear, this little girl is a miniature of Lexie. She loved the ‘moo juice’, too.”
Martha put the milk away while Amanda set a couple of graham crackers on the tray in front of the impatient toddler. “That’s what Lexie called it when she was little. It used to drive her daddy crazy. I personally think that’s the reason she did it.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Amanda took a place at the table next to Lorrie. “Honey, slow down. The cookies aren’t going anywhere.”
“Yet another trait of her momma’s. That girl would barely slow down to eat. When she did, she ate so fast I thought she’d choke. As soon as she was done, Lexie would race from the table and be off again.”
Amanda found the revelation quite humorous. “She still does it. I can only get her to take her time in bed.” Her face flushed suddenly when she realized how the comment sounded. “I mean, eating.” The innocent explanation embarrassed her more. “Oh, hell.”
“Don’t worry, honey. I knew exactly what you meant.” Martha patted Amanda on the shoulder before joining her at the table. “But you sure are cute when you blush.”
Waving her hand in front of her face in an effort to cool off, Amanda cleared her throat. “Let’s see, what were we talking about? Yeah. Where’s Lex?”
Still amused, Martha accepted the subject change. “She took a fellow up to the bunkhouse.”
“Really? Doesn’t she usually call Roy to come get them? Why the special trip?” A gooey hand slapped Amanda’s arm. “Lorrie, no.” She took a paper napkin from the holder in the middle of the table, and wiped herself clean.
“More!” Lorrie used what was left of her last cracker and added a few drops of milk from her cup. “Mommy, more.”
Amanda winced at the mess. “Lorrie, that’s gross.”
The little girl laughed and slapped at the sodden pile. Her laughter soon turned to tears when Amanda used another napkin to clean it up. “No.” She swatted her mother’s hand. “Mine!”
“Lorrie, stop.” Amanda flinched when an errant glob landed in her hair. “That’s it. No more cookies for you.” She ignored the indignant wail that came from the child.
Martha covered her mouth with her hand to prevent a laugh from escaping. When Amanda glared at her, she shook her head and pantomimed zipping her mouth shut.
“I suppose Lex did that, too?”
“Did?” Martha stood and began removing items from the fridge to start dinner. “You know as well as I do that she still loves to make a mess. It takes me half the day to clean the mud from the house when it rains.”
Lorrie settled down and watched Martha as she began chopping vegetables for stew. She saw her get too close to the open box of graham crackers. Mada, cookie?”
“Oh, no, little one. Your mommy would never forgive me.”
The sweet entreaty melted Martha’s heart. She turned to Amanda. “Shouldn’t good manners be rewarded?”
Amanda raised her hands in defeat. “Go ahead. Dinner’s several hours away. “She didn’t know who was happier about the decision, Lorrie or Martha. Both beamed.
“She’s really hard to say no to.” Ruffling the child’s hair, Martha went back to preparing the stew.
“That’s because she has you wrapped around her little finger, Mada. Now, since you’ve appeased the tiny terror, do you want to get back to why Lex felt the need to take a new hire up the road?”
Martha browned the stew meat in a skillet before adding it to the pot. “I’m not sure how much to tell. Maybe it would be best if Lexie told you herself.”
“Told her what?” Lex asked, as she came into the room. Her hair was damp, and she was in her stocking feet. She dropped into a chair and stretched out her legs.
“Amanda was curious why you took Cleve up to the bunkhouse.”
Lex turned to her partner. “She told you about him?”
“No, not really. Martha just mentioned you had taken a man up. Don’t you normally have Roy do that?”
Lorrie, no longer occupied with her food, heard Lex’s voice and immediately started slapping her tray. “Momma, momma.”
“Have you been having fun, lil’ bit?” Lex got up and walked around the table. She couldn’t help but laugh at the mess that was her daughter.
Lorrie’s hair, filled with clumps of soggy crackers, stood up in several directions. She also had more squished between her fingers, and even bits in her eyelashes. “Momma!” Lorrie waved her hands in Lex’s direction, causing particles of cookie to fly everywhere.
“Watch out, there.” Lex took a dishtowel and wiped the toddler’s hands. Once they were clean, Lex picked Lorrie up and held her close. “How’s my girl?” Her question was aimed more at Amanda. “Were you good at the doctor?”
“She was an angel, although I think when she pulled his stethoscope out of his ears, he was a little rattled.”
Lex kissed Lorrie’s forehead. “That’s my girl.”
“So, Lex. About the new guy?”
“His name is Cleve Winters. He showed up here this afternoon and I thought I’d give him a chance.”
Confused, Amanda frowned. “I thought this was the time of year you let a few men go. There’s not that much to do, with winter coming on.”
Lex went back to her chair. She accepted the mug of coffee that Martha placed in front of her. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Martha went back to her preparations, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Realizing she had stalled as long as she possibly could, Lex bounced Lorrie on her knee. “Cleve actually came by to see dad.” Her voice softened, so much that Amanda had to strain to hear it. “He claims that he’s dad’s son.”
“What proof did he have? Was he just trying to get a piece of the ranch?”
“That’s pretty much what I said, too. This guy had a picture of dad, and a letter he had written Cleve’s mother. It explained why he was leaving her to go back to his family. From the way it read, I think he wrote it right after he found out my mother was pregnant with Louis. He never knew about Cleve.”
“Do you think he’s telling the truth?”
Lex played with her coffee cup. “Dad wrote the letter. I’d know his handwriting and signature anywhere. And the timing’s about right. He spent almost as much time in Oklahoma as he did here, back then.” She raised her mug to her lips and snorted derisively. “His excuse was always rodeoing, or buying stock. I can’t believe he’d do something like that to mom.”
Amanda squeezed Lex’s forearm in a show of compassion. “Maybe he just got lonely up there.”
“Don’t try to make excuses for the man. We both know he was pretty much a bastard.” Tiny hands touched her cheeks.
The most important thing now was sitting in Lex’s lap. She nibbled at the little fingers before standing. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go upstairs and see what we can get into.” Bending slightly, she kissed Amanda. She grinned when Lorrie mimicked her. “We’ll see how things go with him. I couldn’t just turn him away.”
“I know, honey. You two go on. I think I’ll help Martha down here for a while.” Amanda watched as Lex took Lorrie from the room. Satisfied they were gone, she got up and walked to the counter. Picking up a knife, she took over the vegetable slicing chores from Martha. “What do you think about all this?”
Martha wiped her hands on a dishtowel. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t too surprised. Although I didn’t start working here until Mrs. Walters was well along in her pregnancy, I could see he was distracted by more than the workings of the ranch.”
“This whole thing doesn’t seem quite right. I remember him speaking of his wife with only the utmost love. Why would he feel the need to mess around on her?”
“That’s something we’ll never know, Amanda. But I think part of his grief was because he felt guilty. He sure didn’t seem like the devoted family man you’d think he’d be.” Martha dumped the vegetables Amanda had chopped into the stew pot. “Why else would he make so many trips away from home when the missus was with child?”
Amanda shook her head. The more she thought about it, the more she was able to believe Cleve Winters’ claims. “You’re right. It makes me wonder what would have happened if he knew he had another son.”
“Me, too. Let’s just hope this doesn’t blow up in Lexie’s face.”
To be continued in part 6
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